by Joanna Foley, RD, CLT December 12, 2020 3 min read

It is quite likely that blood sugar may not be the first thing you think of when it comes to supporting your health. Yet, having balanced blood sugar levels is a key component to overall well being and can provide vital information about what is going on in the body. Hormones influence blood sugar levels and similarly blood sugar levels influences hormones, which is why it's so important to understand the link and what you can to help support stable levels.

What Is Blood Sugar and How Does It Affect Health?

Blood sugar relates to the amount of sugar found in your blood at any given time. Sugar, or glucose, is your body's main source of energy. Food, primarily in the form of carbohydrates, is what provides glucose to the body. Normal blood sugar levels are between 70–100 mg/dL when fasting and 140 mg/dL or lower two hours after eating.

The body relies on stable blood sugar levels to operate properly and maintain good health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), many conditions can occur when blood sugar levels are consistently out of the normal range. Some of these include abnormal kidney, nerve and heart function as well as changes to vision. Imbalanced blood sugar can also have a negative impact on mood, energy levels and appetite. To help manage and prevent these effects, the body has many processes in place to help restore normal blood sugar levels.

How Do Hormones Affect Blood Sugar Levels?

Hormones are chemical messengers in the body, and a primary way the body helps to achieve and maintain stable blood sugar levels. There are several hormones that play a specific role in the process:

  • Insulin: According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, insulin is produced by the pancreas and helps lower blood sugar levels. After eating, food (predominantly carbohydrate rich sources) are digested and broken down into glucose, which is released into the bloodstream and causes blood sugar levels to rise. This signals insulin to tell the cells to take up the glucose to either be used as energy or to be stored for later use. When working optimally, insulin helps prevent blood sugar levels from becoming too high.
  • Glucagon: Like insulin, glucagon is produced by the pancreas, but it has the opposite effect on blood sugar levels. Research shows that glucagon is released in response to low or declining blood sugar levels, and serves to raise levels to a healthy and normal range.

  • Cortisol: Along with glucagon, cortisol is another hormone that raises blood sugar levels. It is the main stress hormone in the body, and it is controlled by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. Optimal cortisol prodution is highest in the morning to wake up and provide energy to get going, and levels gradually decline throughout the course of the day. According to research, cortisol can decrease insulin levels and cause muscle cells to not take up as much glucose for energy, leading to higher blood sugar levels.

Under healthy circumstances, the body produces adequate amounts of each of these hormones to help keep blood sugar levels stable. However, the following lifestyle factors can cause abnormal levels and lead to imbalanced blood sugar:

  • Eating a diet that is high in carbohydrates - especially processed sources and/or overeating, can cause frequently high blood sugar levels and decrease the body's responsiveness to insulin.

  • Being overweight, which research shows is also linked to insulin resistance.

  • High stress, which can cause cortisol levels to become abnormally high and, thus, raise blood sugar levels.

  • Being physically inactive, which a study from the University of Missouri-Columbia shows leads to impaired blood sugar control. It can also lead to weight gain and insulin resistance, studies say.

Having dysregulated blood sugar levels isn't always obvious, so understanding which hormones increase blood sugar is important if you want to be proactive and take control of your health. It's also crucial to follow healthy lifestyle habits that help support balanced hormone levels, such as incorporating a nutrient dense diet or supportive supplementation, getting regular exercise and managing stress levels. A health coach can also help you to understand your current health and work alongside you to create a personalized wellness strategy to support your goals.